It’s still hilarious, possibly even more so than its predecessor through sheer volume of jokes alone, but 22 Jump Street manages to be rushed, over thought, and even kind of smug via a brand of meta humor that makes its tone almost inscrutable. It’s also less memorable than the surprise buddy cop hit that came before it. But complaining that a film by comedic superduo Christopher Miller and Phil Lord is a disappointment is like saying being gifted with a million dollars is less delightful than being gifted with billions. They just set the bar so high for themselves that this time it’s a bit more impossible to clear.
A lot of mileage in the early going comes from Lord and Miller repeatedly admitting that they are making almost the exact same film for a second time instead of trying something new and different. That’s fine, but the tone here is more sarcastic than playful. Following a hilariously cartoonish opening chase involving a big rig, stolen animals, and poor attempts at method acting to go undercover, officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are sent to university to uncover yet another drug ring where they have to “infiltrate the dealers and find the suppliers.” The only real discernible change from high school to university is that Schmidt is the loner outcast this time – albeit one with a romantic interest in the form of Amber Stevens’ good natured art student – and Jenko has become popular once again via his acceptance into a frat and a high profile starting position on the football team.
And so 22 Jump Street goes about its business by pointing out how stupid the very idea of a 21 Jump Street sequel truly is. Some of the bits are genuinely funny, like Nick Offerman’s nonplussed police chief coming back to once again spell out the absurdity of their entire cinematic endeavour or an extended bit where Jenko sparks up a bromance with the starting quarterback (Wyatt Russell) takes the concept of a “meet cute” romance to blissfully idiotic and far too literal heights. But for the first hour of the film, Lord and Miller are going back to the same comedic wells one time too many to strike a tone that’s more constant “elbow to the ribs” gesturing and posturing than the inspired set pieces and astute observations that they’re known for. There’s also a distressing amount of backhanded homophobia on display via way too many jokes about dude on dude blowjobs and double entendres of the “We’re not gay, but…” variety that really drag everything down around it. The first half of the film is positively exhausting, and while more jokes hit than miss, it’s still not as pleasing as the best Lord and Miller efforts have been in the past.
Even more disconcerting is how the film pretty much abandons its best meta-humorous gambits leading into a final act that really doesn’t even make a lot of sense for a comedy that isn’t trying to make much sense in the first place. Sure, the idea of the film almost literally running out of money to pay for itself is funny and the notion to set the climax during spring break is an obvious choice rife with comedic potential, but nothing really comes from it since the film just decides it wants to be a buddy cop flick once again. It’s a sequel that’s self-aware enough to understand that it’s a rush job and a weaker follow-up, but it leans far too heavily on that awareness to a point where Lord and Miller seem like they openly want to apologize for having to slap this together on the fly. That’s not really comedy, but more of a shrug.
Sorry if it seems like I’m complaining too much, but I do genuinely like the film. I can’t say that I didn’t have a good time, and that’s probably because deep down I have a great appreciation for sarcasm. If a crappy sequel like Ghostbusters 2 or Another 48 Hours had this same level of reflexivity, I might have appreciated them more. Aside from the story, 22 Jump Street does still manage to stick to Lord and Miller’s strengths for the most part, and to that of the cast.
In the only other major switch from the previous entry, the bulk of the jokes this time out are handed on a silver platter to Tatum’s dimwitted, but lovable goof who can always rescue the film from being too hip for its own good. He gets all of the best moments, whether it’s his hilariously staged drug trip callback to the first movie (that involves the world’s smallest Lamborghini and cavorting with a dancing rainbow), running around high fiving a room full of people over his partner’s latest fuck up, or openly wondering aloud how their operation has lost all its money, Tatum has proven himself as a master of self parody. He can use his pretty boy looks to get away with anything he pleases, and he’s free enough to say or act as big of a buffoon as he wants provided that he seems sincere about it. He has also become quite the lithe and graceful physical comedian to boot. In just a few short years, Tatum has become the total package for pretty much any role he wants to attempt, and let’s just hope that he tries his hand at more comedies outside this franchise in the future.
Hill has a lot less to do of note this time out, but he certainly seems to have some fun in scenes that are clearly designed to poke fun at his recent turn away from the frat pack and towards his new career as the most shocking perennial Oscar nominee. He’s a good sport as the resident straight man, but his contributions to the story only extend as far as giving everyone who comes in contact with him material to work with. He has great chemistry with his co-stars and there’s a real generosity on display that he allows everyone around him to get the bigger laughs, especially Tatum, an increasingly angered and irate Ice Cube as the boy’s superior officer, and Jillian Bell as Stevens’ chronically sarcastic and mean spirited roommate.
By the end of 22 Jump Street, I had nearly hurt myself laughing, but upon leaving the theatre I could really only recall a small handful of the hundreds of jokes that were thrown at the audience over the course of its admittedly overstuffed 110 minutes. When held up against 21 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie, or even their TV efforts on Clone High – all of which have so many memorable bits that hours can be wasted reminiscing on how great they are – 22 Jump Street feels somewhat inferior both in design and context. All of the self-awareness can’t quite mask the fact that no one involved here particularly wants to make a sequel. Maybe that’s why the film saves its best gag for last: a scorched Earth set of credits stingers that almost ensure another Jump Street film can never happen again. It’s a brilliant capper, but it again comes across as an apology for a movie that does the same thing all over again. But would I watch it again? Absolutely.